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The Future of Agriculture: Designing Tomorrow-1

History is a Good Guide

Predicting the future is often challenging. However, when it comes to the future of the planet and humanity’s relationship with it, looking back at the past can be a good starting point.

The Mayans began their first settlements in the Yucatan region of present-day Mexico around 1000 BCE. The fertile lands and vast forests of Central America made it one of the best geographies to sow the seeds of a civilization. These early settlements, based on agriculture, evolved over time, transforming into cities due to sustained economic and social stability.

This development also extended to science and art, as knowledge accumulated over generations led to advancements in areas such as astronomy, mathematics, and architecture. With the development of trade routes between cities and increasing prosperity, the population grew.

By the 600s CE, the Mayans living in the Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala regions reached a population of two million. It was during this time that the Mayans reached their peak in social, cultural, and technical aspects, relatively advanced compared to other societies on the planet.

However, around 800 CE, this rapid rise began to reverse. The Mayans gradually abandoned their magnificent cities and started migrating to the Caribbean coasts. Some Maya cities continued to thrive and prosper, but by the 1100s, little remained of the once-great civilization. What little was left was eventually destroyed by the Spanish who arrived on the continent in the 1400s.

Throughout history, numerous theories have been put forth by the scientific community regarding the collapse of the Maya civilization. Wars, pandemics, and political instability were some of them.

However, by the 1990s, findings from cave examinations pointed to a meteorological change that occurred around the beginning of the 9th century AD and lasted for approximately 95 years. These dates coincide with the period when the Mayans began to decline. It is known that the region received abundant rainfall between 250 and 800 AD.

Mayan cities located in the northern part of Central America were relatively less affected by this decline. Some cities even continued their development during this period. For instance, the city of Chichen Itza remained vibrant until the 10th century.

However, another drought between 1000 and 1075 AD also affected this city. The amount of processed stone and timber in the city decreased by half. It is likely that the fertile lands and favorable climate conditions led to a significant increase in the population, which in turn required more fertile land for agriculture. Forest areas were converted into agricultural lands to feed the growing population.

Canals were built to meet the increasing water demand of the cities, but these interventions may have disrupted the delicate balance of the ecosystem that had developed over perhaps tens of thousands of years. Consequently, the prolonged drought that affected an agricultural-based civilization led to political instability and wars among the cities, causing the social structure to unravel.

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Image-1. A temple located in Kalakmul, one of the most important cities of the Classic period. (Image Credit: PhilippN)

The tragic fate of the Mayans serves as just one example of what can happen when limited resources are consumed endlessly. Today, the world’s population has surpassed 8 billion. Population projections for the future suggest that by the year 2100, the global population will stabilize around 10 billion. Undoubtedly, such a development is promising for the sustainability of the planet’s resources. However, it alone is not enough.

Human civilization is constantly progressing in various areas with increasing momentum. As resources dwindle over time while demands rise, the most rational approach to balance this equation may not be reducing needs but rather expanding resources.

If we are debating the possibility of making an uninhabitable planet habitable for human life, we can also discuss the potential of making our world a more livable place than it currently is.

Today, with the knowledge and technology we possess, compared to the past, we have the capability to solve our most fundamental problems and build a future that our ancestors could not have even dreamed of.

Post-Scarcity

Imagine a period where most needed goods can be abundantly produced with minimal human labor. In such a world, many products could be obtained by everyone at very low cost, and in some cases, even for free. The increasing mechanization in industries would bring about a continuous rise in efficiency.

As the unit cost of each produced item decreases, they become more accessible to people. The relentless advancement of technology further strengthens the possibility of such a post-scarcity era.

Certainly, if such a situation ever becomes a reality, there may not be a sharp distinction between the “scarcity” and “post-scarcity” periods on the historical scale. The transition to a time where abundance is accessible to everyone carries both opportunities and potential economic and social risks within itself. The ability of governments to manage this process will be determined by their political choices.

For example, the increased efficiency brought by automation in industries reflects as increased profits for companies. The idea of a “universal basic income,” where a portion of the increased profits is used to create new job opportunities, especially for those who become unemployed during the mechanization process, is being discussed in various countries.

The concept of providing regular fixed income to the citizens of a state without any discrimination or conditions seems to be closer to reality in the future, thanks to the contributions of developing technology to our lives.

Many countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Finland, have conducted numerous experiments for implementing this model and have received positive feedback.

While it is always possible to increase supply without reducing demand, it is essential to resort to rational methods to sustain this balance most efficiently, considering the limitations of limited raw materials and energy resources.

In order not to compromise nature for the sake of humanity, innovative methods made possible by technology can replace traditional production methods. Perhaps the obstacles encountered on the road to abundance are not fundamentally caused by limitations from nature or technology? So, where should we start?

Farewell To The Soil

According to the latest data published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the total agricultural area worldwide has decreased from 1.5 billion hectares to 1.4 billion hectares between 1990 and 2021.

Another report by the organization indicates that the forest area, which was 4.1 billion hectares in 1990, has decreased to 4 billion hectares as of 2020.

A similar downward trend can also be observed in Turkey. According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), agricultural areas in Turkey have decreased by 12.3% in the last 18 years. The agricultural land, which was 26.579 million hectares in 2002, decreased to 23.094 million hectares in 2019.

  • The area of vegetable gardens also decreased by approximately 15% during the same period,
  • The vegetable garden area, which was 930 thousand hectares in 2002, decreased to 798 thousand hectares in 2017,
  • According to Social Security Institution (SGK) data, the number of farmers has also decreased by 48% in the last 12 years,
  • The number of farmers, which was 1.127 million in 2008, decreased to 600 thousand in 2019.

As the loss in arable land increases over the years, even though it can be compensated to some extent by modern agricultural techniques and increased productivity, the ongoing urbanization, industrial activities, and changing climate conditions suggest that the loss of existing agricultural and forest areas will continue in the coming years.

Recent extreme weather events, prolonged droughts, and decreasing groundwater levels worldwide due to climate change are putting additional pressure on agricultural production.

Considering the growing global population and its impact on food demand, it’s essential to acknowledge the limitations of traditional agriculture methods based on soil. No matter how mechanized the process becomes, and even with the enhancement of plant resilience and nutritional value through genetic design, our agricultural production will inevitably remain dependent on soil, weather conditions, and all other environmental influences. Ultimately, nature is uncontrollable and should not be controlled.

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Image-2. The tomatoes grown on the International Space Station returned to Earth on April 15, 2023. (Image Credit: NASA)

Let’s not forget that traditional agriculture was invented by our ancestors approximately 12,000 years ago, and soil was essentially viewed as a tool for cultivating crops. When suitable physical conditions are provided, it is entirely possible to grow various plant-based products in many different environments.

Underground farming in abandoned mines, large enclosed factory environments, and the International Space Station (ISS) have been and continue to be used for commercial and experimental cultivation of various agricultural products.

In fact, for the potential human journey to Mars in the near future, experimental agricultural practices in the planetary environment are being researched to sustainably meet the food needs of astronauts on the surface.

Other Parts Of The Article Series

References

  • Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Türkiye), (2020). “Plant Production Data.”
  • Euronews.com (May 2020). “Number of farmers decreased by 48% in the last 12 years in Türkiye, and agricultural areas are also decreasing.” https://tr.euronews.com (Accessed on May 2, 2023)
  • Anaç, D. (Ed.). (2020). “Topraksız Tarım ve Bitki Besleme Teknikleri.” Nobel Akademi Yayıncılık.
  • ziptiedomes.com. (2023). “Geodesic Dome Kits that are Easy to Build!”  (Accessed on May 2, 2023)

Beğen  2
Alican TONBUL (TA1CBA)
Yazar

Dünyadaki Mars Projesi (MoEP) gönüllüsü ve yazarı, fizik öğretmeni. Amatör telsiz çağrı işareti: TA1CBA (Mars on Earth Project-MoEP Volunteer and author. Physics teacher. Callsign: TA1CBA)

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